At the United Nations Security Council’s ministerial meeting on securing peace in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the rest of the Great Lakes region on July 25, to be presided over by United States Secretary of State John Kerry, we will likely be reminded that Congo, often referred to as the “rape capital of the world,” has yet to break free of its human-rights crisis.
In March, we traveled to Congo to research access to justice for victims of sexual violence. There we interviewed lawyers, judges, civil society leaders, local and international nongovernmental organizations and United Nations officials. Our corresponding report was written with five other graduate students as a capstone workshop, advised by Prof. Yasmine Ergas from the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University in collaboration with Physicians for Human Rights.
The report reveals that the current reparations system is virtually useless. Despite efforts to strengthen the justice system, barriers to justice for rape victims remain insurmountably high.
Victims should, in theory, receive reparations through the Congolese justice system. In 2006, the country adopted a new constitution and two new laws to strengthen the fight against impunity for sexual violence. To enable these laws to be carried out, multiple international and domestic organizations have set up mobile courts, which transport military and civilian courts to the most remote areas of Congo.
Besides providing victims with assistance from medical practitioners, psychologists and lawyers throughout the trial process, the courts issue guilty verdicts that result in both prison sentences for perpetrators and monetary awards for victims.
Yet victims almost never receive reparations, even if they are awarded compensation in court. In fact, barriers to eventually receiving such awards occur almost immediately after the victim is raped. Most likely, the victim does not seek redress because of shame, stigma or lack of support from her community. (In our research, we focused on cases of men raping women, even though incidences of male on male and female upon male/female rape happen.)
If she does seek redress, she is often encouraged to go through traditional justice mechanisms. These practices use community leaders to arbitrate over rape cases and require perpetrators to pay the victim’s family money or in-kind reparations, such as cows or goats.
In other cases, the victim is forced to marry the perpetrator. These mechanisms are meant to repair the loss of a family’s honor, with the award representing the bride price that a family would have received if she had not been raped. Police often persuade women to make these arrangements rather than initiating a legal proceeding with the police taking bribes, fees or a cut of the award along the way.
These traditional mechanisms are not justice. They are detrimental to the victim since they benefit the victim’s family, not the victim herself. To state the obvious, forcing the victim to marry her perpetrator does not provide redress. And a perpetrator who rapes has committed a criminal offense and should be subject to criminal punishment. Evading formal prosecution undermines the rule of law.
Even when victims successfully take a case to court, reparations that are awarded are rarely paid because of such factors as pervasive poverty, excessive post-trial complexities and the lack of political will on the part of the Congolese government. Reparations can range from $300 to millions of dollars. Some human-rights advocates have suggested a reparations program where perpetrators pay victims the wages they earn while they are jailed, but this would account for only a fraction of reparations awarded.
After a victim has been awarded reparations in court, she faces paying numerous fees, such as $15 to obtain a copy of the judgment, a processing charge at the ministerial level of 6 percent of the total reparation amount (to be paid before the victim receives her reparation) and additional travel costs. Victims can claim indigence to waive the fees, but this requires more prohibitively complex paperwork.
In cases where the government is found equally liable because the perpetrator is a government employee, procedural difficulties are immense. Before a victim can receive her reparation from the government, the judgment must be sent to the ministries of justice, budget and finance in Kinshasa, Congo’s capital, before traveling back to the provincial governor. Despite these huge obstacles, international donors do not finance this post-trial phase and, with no such incentive to pursue awards, lawyers do not follow through. In these cases, the state has neverpaid reparations to victims. (International donors pay a portion of the pre-trial and trial phases.)
After navigating this elaborate process while risking shame and fear of reprisals, victims ultimately receive nothing. This causes retraumatization and discourages other women from filing similar cases. At the same time, however, the arrest, conviction and detention of victims’ attackers provides some sense of justice, although limited prison security in Congo often allows criminals to escape.
Considering these barriers, our research team came up with nine recommendations, including paying lawyers and advocates to help victims in the post-trial phase, creating a reparations fund for victims and exempting victims of sexual violence from court fees.
Ultimately, it is crucial that reparations, when awarded, are actually delivered to victims. In a country that has suffered institutionalized corruption, fear and abuse since its inception, it is easy to discount continuing sexual violence as an immutable characteristic of Congo. Yet our recommendations show that immediate, practical steps can be taken to help bring justice to the countless victims who have suffered for decades. As the UN Security Council assesses the situation in the Great Lakes region, it must recognize that as long as these barriers to justice exist, there will be no meaningful peace and security in Congo.